A Mission to Serve: An Idealist AND Realistic Approach to the Business of Online Education


Caleb Simmons, Ph.D., Executive Director of Online Education, University of Arizona

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Online learning is the future of higher education. 

We read it. We hear it. We say it. And as online education leaders, we shout it from the mountaintops. 

Online education and e-learning is also big business with the eLearning IT infrastructure market reportedly worth almost $400B (USD) worldwide. 

As administrators of online institutions, we are in the thick of it. We all know the jargon—ROI, churn, scalability, cost-benefit, opportunity costs, lead generation—and, without a doubt, we need to apply these principles to effectively run our enterprises and to meet our goals of increased enrollments and revenues.

For those of us that work within traditional, residential institutions, online education is often in liminal space—simultaneously viewed by different factions of campus as a critical part of the strategic plan, a salve for financial downturns, savior to decreasing enrollments, mechanism of access and equitable inclusion, and, to be frank, very often (and erroneously) as a lesser modality of teaching. 

In this milieu, no matter the type of online institution, we are often forced to justify our existence and our modality through appeals to revenue generation. 

I’m not saying that revenue generation is a bad thing or irrelevant. Certainly, institutions of higher learning desperately need to develop new sources of revenue generation and maximize current revenue streams to continue to grow and thrive, and online education can and does provide these opportunities for strategic growth. We, however, can’t let that become our mission. If we do, we are doomed. 

Our mission must be to serve; to serve our students by providing pathways to higher ed and attainment of degrees and professional credentials thatwould otherwise be out of reach for the vast majority of people throughout the world. 

If serving students is our mission, then everything we do ought to serve that mission.

Of course, we do a great job showing learners our pathways, and our marketing teams are experts in market segmentation. We pore over funnel data and scrutinize conversion rates, but what happens once learners come through our door? 

I challenge you to join me in an experiment. Next time you are at a conference with a large population of online administrators, walk through the exhibition hall and count the number of booths that focus on enrollment and marketing versus those that focus on the student experience or student support mechanisms. Then reflect on what this says about our industry. Even closer to home, take a look at your own financials. What is the ratio of marketing/enrollment support to student support? Does that reflect a mission to serve?

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a strong advocate for marketing resources and enrollment support. These are vital for our mission. My point is more philosophical: why is it so easy to justify spending to bring in new students but so hard to justify the resources to keep them?

Of course, we all pay attention to retention, persistence, and graduation rates, and these metrics are central in telling our institutional stories and to benchmark our performance. But we’ve resigned ourselves to accept, as if a truism, that online education will have lower retention and graduation rates than traditional residential colleges and universities (this is certainly the case now). Yes, we serve a more vulnerable population, but if online education is the future of higher ed, then we must ask ourselves if we are really okay with 55% retention (USNWR national average for online bachelor’s programs)? Is that truly serving our students?

At this point, if you are still reading, you’re probably thinking that I’m an idealist. I certainly am. But I’m also grounded in reality. As any undergraduate business major can tell you, it costs more money to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing customer. Retention is good business in any sector. Retention and persistence are intrinsically tied to both enrollment and revenue growth. It makes solid business sense to invest in the student experience and student success to avoid massive churn year-over-year. 

If you were able to retain an additional 10% of your students year-over-year how much higher would your enrollment be? How much more revenue would you generate? The numbers add up fast. 

By recentering our mission in everything that we do, it is possible to better serve our students and to generate more revenue for our institutions. 

As leaders in online education, we need to focus on our mission to serve our students. Not only is it the right thing to do; it’s just good business.

Want to be a part of this dynamic discussion? There is still time to register for the upcoming OLC Leadership Network Symposium, taking place October 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. We hope to see you there!  

Thank you to D2L, Honorlock, Perlego, and Uwill for their generous support of the 2023 OLC Leadership Network Symposium

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